Mounting legal bills in sheriff controversy

By Justin Boron

The toll keeps going up.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill's dismissal of 27 sheriff employees Jan. 3 has spun a complicated web of litigation with mounting costs in attorney fees, administrative burden, and a possible settlement with the employees that could end up in the tens of millions.

Three months into the debacle - which pits a sheriff's power to reorganize against county employees' protection from the political whim of incoming officials - the county has paid $36,146.27 in attorney fees, according to county invoices obtained by the News Daily through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The dollar amount does not include the cost of overtime hours and extra expenditures made by the county in relation to the conflict with Hill.

It also doesn't include the fees that the county may have to pay Hill's ever-expanding legal team, which primarily includes Evan Kaine, Rolf Jones, and John Stivarius.

Kaine and Jones said they have petitioned the county for compensation.

But Jones wouldn't comment on a claim within the county administration that his firm is asking for $350 to $400 per hour.

He did say they deserved more than what they will get.

"If we were asking for that, it wouldn't be enough," Jones said.

The standard fees for attorneys who work for the county are $115 per hour.

With a lengthy appeal process still looming in the recent civil service ruling against Hill, and a federal discrimination lawsuit in the works, the cost of the controversy is expected to escalate dramatically.

County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the attorney for the 27 fired employees made an initial offer of $35 million to settle the federal suit.

Harlan Miller, the employees' attorney, has said the number is high.

Regardless, if any decision in the suit results in more than $2 million, which is the amount covered by the county's insurance policy, it will sharply increase taxes for Clayton County residents, Bell said.

"I'm saddened by the impact that those actions are having on the community," he said.

Combined with the crisis over a state bill to limit sales tax collections on fuel, the community could be looking at a reassessment of their taxes next year, Bell said.

Internally, in the county government insurance costs could also rise, said Suzanne Brown, the county public information officer.

"We could absolutely see an increase in our liability insurance premiums just based on the claims that have already been filed. There is even the chance that this could affect our ability to obtain insurance in the future since insurance carriers look at previous claims experience," she said in an emailed statement.

Hill deflected blame for the impact on the county, saying Bell initiated the litigation by involving himself in a matter that should have been handled between the sheriff and his employees.

"If he wants to talk about wasting taxpayers' money, he's the one that's doing it," Hill said.

He also said that past sheriffs have been sued and the county had to foot the bill then as well.

Aside from the financial consequence of the firings, external perception of the county may have taken a hit as well, community activists say.

But economic development experts say the public's and the business world's focus on local political crises is usually short-lived.

David Haddow, the president of his own real estate consultant agency in Atlanta, said the crises can have some effect on a community but correlating them to the local economy or real estate market is difficult to do.

"Anytime you have political turmoil . . . in government, it can eventually have an impact on economic development," he said.

But political instability in local communities is typically low on businesses list of factors determining where they will locate, Haddow said.

Also, he said while there have been instances of crises discouraging people to buy homes, they do not necessarily drive down the property values.

Problems more directly related to citizens, such as speed traps, play a larger role in people's decision to move somewhere, said Emory Brock, the county's economic development director.

As the impact on the county's finances and reputation builds, the community is anxious for the conflict to be resolved, said Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP.

"They need to try and drop some of these suits and counter suits," he said. "We can be using that money for something else."